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Facebook offers an olive branch to local newspapers as tensions escalate

A $3 million project to help boost subscriptions comes as a newspaper trade group pushes to band against Facebook and Google
Image: Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California.
Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California.Beck Diefenbach / Reuters

Facebook helped destroy the traditional business model of local newspapers — advertising — by offering customers lower rates and a much broader audience.

Now, Facebook is making some amends by working with local publishers to boost their other revenue stream: subscriptions.

Facebook on Tuesday announced a $3 million program to help newspapers in cities across the U.S. attract more digital subscribers.

“Local news publishers tell us that digital subscribers are critical to the long-term sustainability of their business,” Campbell Brown, head of news partnerships at Facebook, wrote in a blog post. “We know Facebook is one part of the strategy to engage readers and ultimately drive paid subscriptions.”

The program, part of the Facebook Journalism Project, is the social network’s latest effort to be a better partner to news outlets. The company has become a major part of the U.S. news scene, thanks in part to the platform’s embrace of news content starting in 2012. Since then, Facebook has encouraged publishers to offer up a variety of content, including text, short-form video and live video, all without offering much money in return.

The news media’s frustrations with Facebook bubbled below the surface for some time before growing more public in recent months, particularly after Facebook announced that it would be reducing how much news content ended up in its News Feed.

Since then, major media executives, including 21st Century Fox Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch and CNN President Jeff Zucker, have publicly called out Facebook (and Google) over the relationship imbalance.

Facebook has also been working to repair its image as an accelerator of misinformation and propaganda during the 2016 election. The company recently launched an effort to begin sorting publishers by quality based on results from user surveys.

Facebook’s subscription initiative will last for three months and work with 10 to 15 publishers. The papers already enrolled include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Denver Post, The Miami Herald, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Seattle Times.

Facebook’s efforts to repair its relationship with publishers have been met with plenty of skepticism. Its subscription program was no different.

Publishers continue to work with Facebook and Google, but have also begun to organize against them. On Tuesday, a major newspaper trade group announced that it will be forming a political action committee to lobby against Google and Facebook, according to a report from Axios.

David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, the group forming the PAC, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Sunday laying out the issue at hand.

“Google and Facebook have become the primary and de facto regulators of the news business, and governments around the world are starting to recognize the danger,” Chavern wrote.

Chavern and the News Media Alliance are backing legislation that would allow newspapers to band together and withhold their content from Facebook and Google, a move that is currently made illegal by antitrust regulation.

“If antitrust enforcers can’t protect society from the outsize influence of modern-day trusts, the least the government can do is get out of the way and let publishers protect themselves and their readers,” Chavern wrote.